Story by Lel Tone. Photography by Will Wissman
The phone in my hotel room rings in the darkness. On the line, the receptionist at the Acuario Hotel bombards my sleep-drunk mind with directions in the Castilian language, of which I do not understand. I turn on the light, blinking, look at my watch. It is 6 a.m. The storm rages outside in the darkness; it has been dumping for the last 24 hours. I have heard the avalanche control work going on every hour throughout the night. Explosive blasts, thundering through Las Leñas Valley.
Rummaging around in the darkness, I gather my gear, trying not to wake up my roommate and fellow First Ascent–teammate Lynsey Dyer. I meet our friend and local guru José Varela in the hotel lobby. We shuffle through knee-deep, light-density snow to the Ski Patrol office to meet the “Jefe de Pistas,” Assistant Patrol Director José Peletay.
The Ski Patrol office is like any you might see in the U.S.: first-aid equipment, avalanche-rescue equipment and giant topo maps of the ski area hanging on the walls. Radios charging on shelves squawk as groomers and avalanche patrol teams camping on the upper reaches of the mountain share information about snow accumulations and wind speeds. I’m feeling right at home.
José sits at his desk, alone in the quiet office in the wee hours of the morning. He has spent the past few hours orchestrating the avalanche mitigation work around the crucial areas of the mountain, protecting personnel, lifts and buildings from the raging Andean storm. José types away on the keyboard of his computer and calls up the Gazex station #5 (a remotely controlled avalanche mitigation system). Passwords are entered. Initiation buttons are pushed. A few seconds pass by and a huge blast is heard rumbling in the valley as the Gazex on Fosiles blasts the starting zone with a mixture of propane and oxygen. Immediate feedback is registered on José’s computer in terms of seismic activity. In 1989, Las Leñas installed their first two Gazex machines at Cerro el Collar, the only South American resort to this day to employ such technology. About five years ago the Las Leñas resort made a giant monetary commitment to expand this program to a total of twelve installations, with hopes to expand to 53 in the future. With five installations going for about $1.5 million a pop, that’s quite a chunk of change.
José invites me to join their crew to shoot the 75-mm Howitzer that controls a more remote area of the resort where there are no Gazex installations available. I jump on the back of a snowmobile and am transported through blower powder to their gun mount at the top of the Eros Poma lift. Four members of the Argentinean Army, contracted by the ski area, carry out the “mission.” Coordinates are called in; a huge warhead is loaded into the barrel. The gun is fired less than 20 feet from me and I can feel the compression reverberate throughout my entire body. “Fire in the hole!” Hell, yeah!
The reason for this kind of aggressive response to the storm is that the resort has a complex avalanche problem: Almost 80 percent of the ski area lies directly within avalanche terrain. The situation here is unprecedented in that even a slough running 3,200 feet down Eduardo’s into the main portion of the ski area can be larger than many slab avalanches that we encounter in our North American resorts. In a ski area like this you need a “bag of tools” (i.e. avalanche mitigation measures). Leñas employs avalanche barriers, thrown hand-charges, avalaunchers and artillery into their arsenal.
I find this commitment to the safety of the ski area and its personnel to be incredibly progressive. When most ski areas in the U.S. are solely focused on putting in new chairlifts for uphill capacity, new base areas and new restaurants to try to increase revenues, Las Leñas is making the commitment to safety for its personnel and clientele. Ski areas in the United States could learn from this safety and business model.
Two days after my experience with the Las Leñas Ski Patrol we would reap the benefits of the pisters (patrollers) hard work by getting first chair on the Marte lift. Over a meter of fresh snow in the mountains and bluebird skies, the First Ascent ski team was able to lay down first tracks on Eduardo’s, the quintessential Las Leñas run. The stoke was high and the mountain had surely delivered.
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